Museum Musings – Who Was George Flett?

The Reverend George Flett stayed only a short time at the Prince Albert mission, but his influence is still felt today.

by Fred Payton
Prince Albert Historical Society

Earlier this spring, I listened to a conversation with a visitor to the Historical Museum about the arrival and settlement of the community which we call Prince Albert.

James Nisbet, it was explained, arrived here 155 years ago on July 23rd.  He negotiated with the First Nations leaders who were camped in the area, won their acceptance, and established his mission.

Thinking that I could be helpful in furthering the discussion, I said, “Don’t forget George Flett.”  In return, I was asked, “Who was George Flett?”  Although he played a significant role in the location of the Nisbet mission, Flett and his importance appears to have been forgotten.

George Flett was the son of an Orkneyman, also George Flett, who was a fur trader with the Hudson Bay Company.  His mother, Peggy (Cardinal) Whitford, was a Metis woman and the sister of Michael Cardinal, a man who fathered six remarkable chiefs, all of whom played significant roles in Canadian history, with at least three of them signators to major treaties.  This parentage resulted in Flett being fluent in Cree, and very knowledgeable about First Nations characteristics and customs, which greatly increased his influence with the First Nations people.

Flett was a brother-in-law to the Reverend John Black and, prior to joining Nisbet’s mission, worked as an interpreter for the Hudson Bay Company and farmed near the Isbister Settlement in what is now the west end of Prince Albert.

In 1866, as the Nisbet party began its trek from the Red River Settlement, Flett left his employment with the Hudson Bay Company at Victoria (near Fort Edmonton).  The expectation was that he would meet Nisbet on the trail prior to their arrival at Fort Carlton.  It is unknown how or why Flett was persuaded to leave his lucrative job with the Hudson Bay Company to become an integral member of the mission party.  We know that in 1854, when he had previously been asked to join a mission, he had been very forthright in his refusal.  On that occasion, he was adamant that missionaries would have to forego competing with each other for First Nations souls before he could bring himself to participate in missionary work. 

It may have been Flett’s experience working as a translator for a Methodist missionary at Victoria which prompted his change of mind.  Flett, in a letter to Nisbet sometime after 1854, had expressed his admiration for that missionary and the work that he was doing with the First Nations people.  Regardless of the reason for his decision, he decided to join Nisbet and rode to meet him.

Flett, with his wife Mary and accompanied by two others (likely Adam Isbister and Oliph Olson), eventually met up with Nisbet’s party about a day’s drive from Carlton House, just as the Nisbet party was crossing the South Saskatchewan River.  The two men accompanying Flett were from the Isbister Settlement and they invited Nisbet to settle near them on the North Saskatchewan River, near that settlement.

Flett and Nisbet appeared to be in agreement with each other about the function of a mission.  It would be a secure base from which to travel to the First Nation camps, which tended to be quite mobile.  The mission should be a training place for the First Nation youth where they could learn farming and how to live a settled existence.  Both Flett and Nisbet were aware that the bison were becoming scarce, and felt that there was a need to assist the First Nations people to look toward a future with such scarcity.  

Nisbet had identified five prospective locations where he might establish his mission.  The site that he most favoured was near Fort Pitt on the North Saskatchewan River.  Flett considered each of the sites, and eventually suggested just two locations, neither of which included Fort Pitt

As they traveled to Fort Carlton, Flett advised Nisbet of his suggestion that they consider these two specific locations.   Personnel at Fort Carlton, especially the Chief Factor Lawrence Clarke, agreed with Flett regarding his suggestions.  Flett took Nisbet to see one of the two sites, a place identified as Whitefish Lake.  It offered a number of advantages, but had one very serious disadvantage.  Prior to settling the site, a road would have to be cut through the forest.

The second site, about fifty miles down river from Fort Carlton, was considered to be equally suitable. Nisbet and Flett went to inspect the proposed site and found it highly suitable to their needs.  But the First Nations people camped nearby were unwilling to support their plans, fearing that a mission would attract settlers and drive away the bison.  Flett, after two days of negotiation, was able to convince the leaders to let the mission have the site.  He did so by speaking to them in their native language, telling them that he was born near the site (at Moose Lake, near Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River), that some of the prairie chiefs were his cousins, and that his mother had important native relatives.  In claiming a share in the land, Flett used the same arguments that the First Nations people themselves used, and he therefore was able to win the argument.

Nisbet had brought the necessary supplies with him for the establishment of their settlement, including livestock.  Once the decision had been made to settle in the recommended location, Flett started to drive the stock overland from Fort Carlton, arriving at the Isbister settlement shortly before the rest of the Nisbet party, who were traveling by river.  According to a letter written by Nisbet, it was 8:00 o’clock on the morning of July 23rd when they met together at the chosen site.

After the mission was partially organised, Nisbet and Flett traveled further up river to visit Hudson Bay Company forts and other First Nations camps.  Flett was the ideal companion for Nisbet on this trip since he could speak the language and knew the country well.  It was obvious, as they traveled, that he was familiar with the way of life which the locals lived.  His willingness to spend the time talking with them allowed Flett and Nisbet to receive respect and support from the First Nations people. 

Flett stayed only a short time at the Prince Albert mission.  Publicly, it was suggested that he left because his wife needed medical treatment which could only be acquired at the Red River.  However, a review of private correspondence between the two made it clear that Flett and Nisbet were not as much in agreement regarding the running of the mission as it had initially appeared.  Flett wanted to spend his time talking to and educating the First Nations people, making connections with them.  Nisbet wanted him to labour towards establishing the mission as a farming enterprise and a model farm.

Flett wrote to Nisbet that his chief reason for not returning to Prince Albert was that Nisbet “wanted me to work all day at something or other”.  He went on to say, “I thought I would be a useful man for the mission as long as I could speak or at least as long as I had health; but you are so determined to make me work that I am obliged to leave the work of God that I was so delighted with.”

A few years after returning to the Red River, Flett was ordained as a missionary.  He began his work at Fort Pelly, eventually supplying six pastorates.  At the time of his death in 1897 at the age of 80, he had spent 31 years of his life in the North West Territories, 21 of those years as a missionary to the First Nations people. So, who was George Flett?  In reality, he was responsible for the establishment of this community in its current location.  Had Nisbet had his way, it is possible that Prince Albert would have been established further north and west, closer to Fort Pitt.